Today’s cinema adventure: Desperate Living, the 1977 feature by underground filmmaking icon John Waters, featuring an assortment of his “Dreamland” players in the tale of a deranged suburban housewife who is exiled with her maid to a shantytown full of social rejects. Financed, as all of Waters’ early projects were, on a shoestring budget, it generated notoriety through the outrage it sparked among the lesbian community for its treatment of same-sex female relationships, but it failed to catch on with the public to the extent of his previous hits, Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, probably due in part to the absence of his signature star, Divine (who was unavailable to appear because of his commitment to a theatrical project in New York) but also because the “midnight movie” fad which had provided the perfect venue for the earlier films had largely subsided by the time of its release. Nevertheless, it has taken its place as a cult classic alongside the director’s other works of the period, with which it shares an outrageous, anarchic sensibility and a deliberate intention to provide shock value through its depiction of socially taboo behavior.
The plot follows the misadventures of Peggy Gravel, a housewife from an affluent Baltimore suburb, who has recently returned home- perhaps prematurely- from a stint in a mental hospital. Paranoid, delusional, and disgusted by virtually everything, she harangues those around her with wild and hysterical rants, accusing the neighborhood children of trying to kill her and reproving her husband for his ineffectualness. When he attempts to calm her by administering her medication, she assaults him, calling for aid from her maid, Grizelda, an obese black woman whom Mr. Gravel has recently caught stealing from the household, and who now, believing she is protecting Peggy, smothers him to death by sitting on his face. When the two realize they have committed murder, they go on the run together, attempting to drive out of town in Peggy’s car, but they are stopped by a policeman; instead of arresting them, however, he demands their underpants and some kisses for his cross-dressing, auto-erotic pleasure. In exchange, he offers to let them escape to Mortville, a sort of hobo jungle on the outskirts of town where the criminal dregs of local society can find safe haven among their own degenerate kind. The two women make the journey, and find themselves in a derelict town built mostly of cardboard and garbage; after trading a lottery ticket for a guest house owned by hard-edged lesbian Mole McHenry and her girlfriend, Muffy St. Jacques (“the most beautiful woman in Mortville”), they learn that the community is ruled by Queen Carlotta, a sadistic and self-serving tyrant who takes pleasure in degrading her subjects and dispensing draconian punishment to any who dare to displease her or disobey her absolute commands. As the unlikely comrades settle into Mortville life, they begin their own lesbian affair, despite Peggy’s revulsion; meanwhile, Queen Carlotta’s egalitarian daughter, Princess Coo-Coo, has fallen in love with the trash collector, and renounces her privileged life to elope with him. The angry Carlotta has him killed, and when Coo-Coo flees with his body, she seeks refuge in the home of Peggy and Grizelda. Peggy immediately alerts Carlotta’s goons, and Grizelda, attempting to protect the Princess, is killed in the ensuing struggle when she causes the house to collapse on herself. Peggy, however, is rewarded for her loyalty to the Queen by being appointed as the replacement for the now-imprisoned Coo-Coo, and as her first duty she sets into motion the royal plan to infect the entire town with rabies, starting with Coo-Coo herself. Back outside the “palace,” the lottery ticket Mole accepted as rent has proven to be a winner, so she uses the prize money to buy a bargain basement sex change for herself, thinking it will please Muffy, who has been goading her with fantasies about men. Instead, it repulses her, causing her to admit that she loves Mole just the way she is; the sewn-on penis is severed and thrown to the neighborhood dog, and with their bond renewed, the couple leads the Mortvillians in a revolt against Peggy and the Queen, at last exacting vengeance for the brutality of their regime.
If this narrative sounds a bit convoluted, it’s no surprise; Desperate Living constitutes Waters’ attempt at an epic fairy tale, with multiple characters in interwoven subplots, and part of his particular milieu– at least in these earlier films- is a disregard for logical coherence in narrative structure. Waters’ story lines are usually threads intended to link together his depraved set pieces, and a great deal of the fun comes from the fact that they are generally irrelevant to the real purpose of the movie, which is mainly to delight and disgust his viewers, preferably at the same time. The downside to this approach, from a certain point-of-view, is that many of his movies have a tendency to “peter out” rather than build to a climax, with the final resolution often being little more than a means to tie up the loose ends; but Waters, always the iconoclast, has never concerned himself with following rules, and such an aesthetic consideration is as immaterial to his agenda as laws and social mores are to his characters.
This latter point is not strictly true, actually. Waters’ films are usually populated by people who are greatly concerned with codes of conduct, albeit warped or inverted ones. Here, for instance, Peggy is motivated by a fanatical devotion to her own brand of decency and decorum, a world view in which she, as a member of the social elite, is the natural recipient of preferential treatment and should be immune from the disgusting unpleasantries of the world; it happens that, for her, those unpleasantries include any form of natural impulse or show of sentimentality or affection. She hates nature, is repelled by her husband’s touch, and would rather be raped by the kinky policeman than submit to his kiss; yet she is willing to ally herself with an oppressor and give up her own life in service of the ideal of autocratic privilege. Similarly, the avowed man-hater, Mole, is prepared to transform herself into the very object of her own loathing in order to satisfy the needs of the woman she loves, not just because of her desire to please her lover, but because she is dedicated to her role as protector and provider. The irony of both characters, of course, is that they personify the things they themselves despise; the victim becomes the victimizer and the militant feminist embodies the negative masculine stereotype she has rejected in others. In similar ways, the other denizens of Desperate Living enact this paradoxical principle, or else they perform the meaningless reactionary pantomime of the social bystander, chasing their own self-serving needs and pleasures, deluding themselves with rationalizations and platitudes, and expressing outrage when they are met with opposition; Waters shows us a world of degenerates, overseen by other degenerates, and the only unacceptable transgression is the assumption of authority. Of course, one could open up a discussion about the layers of social satire, political allegory, psychological commentary, or mythological inversion that can be seen within this low-rent fantasy melodrama; or perhaps we might speculate about the filmmaker’s intentions regarding such things as alienation of the audience, subversion of societal values and norms, or the use of cinema as an expression of counter-cultural concerns. In the long run, however, Waters’ interest in such matters is clearly parenthetical, at best, and his work here- as with all of his films, particularly the “Trash Trilogy” consisting of this and the two previous efforts- has more to do with his creation of a signature mise-en-scène which can best be described as “transgressive camp.” Even more than that, perhaps, it has to do with sharing his warped sensibilities through the medium he loves.
That Desperate Living is an expression of the filmmaker’s own imagination is certain; as the producer, writer, director and cameraman, he makes sure what shows up on the screen is pure Waters. The histrionic dialogue, the over-saturation of de-glamorized nudity and sex, the exploration of fetish behavior and insular communities, the skewering of respectable society, the fixation on repellent imagery and ideas; these are trademark elements in his films, and they are all present here in spades. Desperate Living features copious full-frontal nudity (both male and female), the sexualization of children, a baby in a refrigerator, the human consumption of vermin, sodomy with a firearm, cannibalism, and penile amputation, to name just a few of its dubious delights, and in typical Waters fashion, they are de-sensationalized to the point of banality- which is why they amuse us rather than outrage us. This, of course, is precisely the point, if there must be a point; Waters shows us that the only thing more ridiculous than human behavior is to be offended by it.
Indulging in this pageant of absurd excess is a cast mostly comprised of the director’s regulars, a troupe of stalwart non-actors upon whose services he has relied upon from his earliest days. Leading the pack is the incomparable Mink Stole, a fixture in Waters’ films who is here given her most prominent role as Peggy, sinking her teeth with relish into the character as she alternates between hysterical wailing and some of the most ferocious bitchery you will ever see. She is perhaps (apart from the late Divine) the most proficient purveyor of the curiously bad-but-somehow-great acting that defines the style of the filmmakers’ canon, and Desperate Living offers probably the best showcase of her unique talents. Accompanying her on the adventure is Jean Hill, a greeting-card model turned actress whose jubilant sass makes her a fitting complement to Stole’s venomous ice queen, and the two exude an undeniable chemistry as they act out their perverted fantasia on Imitation of Life. Waters newcomer Liz Renay (a notorious burlesque queen, former gun moll, and convicted perjurer, whose scandalous autobiography prompted the director to pursue her for his film) brings a surprising freshness of personality- not to mention her sizable breasts, unfettered onscreen for a good deal of the film- as Muffy, and Susan Lowe as the pugnacious Mole, normally one of the director’s bit players, manages to hold her own admirably in the role originally intended for Divine. Also notable is Mary Vivian Pearce as the goofily likable Coo-Coo, and “Turkey Joe” in his deliciously trashy cameo as the cross-dressing cop. The standout performance, though, comes from the sublime Edith Massey, the snaggle-toothed ex-waitress who became a sort of muse for John Waters and a cult icon to boot, as Queen Carlotta. With her inimitably amateurish delivery, her indescribable physical presence, and her inescapable authenticity, she makes this grotesque character into a mesmerizing spectacle; gleefully punishing her groveling subjects, turning her leather-boy lackeys into sexual objects with whom she engages in lewd- and graphic- excesses, or sweetly bestowing gifts on a pigeon like the skid row vision of a Disney Princess and her animal friends, she is the indisputable highlight of Desperate Living. The lady had charisma, there’s no denying it.
In spite of the fact that the cast is entirely on target, however, the absence of Waters’ supreme diva, Divine, is keenly felt in Desperate Living. There is a void, somehow, in the center of the movie, that none of the other personalities can fill. This is not to say that any of them are lacking in commitment or ability- at least, the kind of ability required of them here- but that some intangible quality is missing that none of them are quite able to provide; it’s possible that this is due to the lack of a strong character to provide central focus in the story, for Desperate Living, in truth, is all over the map- but then so are most of Waters’ films, a fact which audiences easily overlook with Divine’s electric presence as an anchor. It’s hard, though, to place the blame wholly on this gap for the fact that the movie doesn’t quite work- for, unfortunately, it doesn’t. Though it is a veritable treasure trove of deliciously quotable lines and ripe with the kind of unforgettable lunatic imagery that keeps us engaged in any given individual moment of the film, it never really grabs us with the unexpected visceral urgency of some of his other works; all the pieces are there, but the whole package leaves us decidedly unsatisfied. It may be due to the attempted scope of the story, or the fact that the fantasy is so far removed from real experience that it loses the sliver of plausibility which gives the director’s preposterously lurid tales their outrageous edge, but for whatever reason, Desperate Living loses steam soon after it takes us to Mortville, a fact that is particularly disappointing in face of the fact that the film’s first ten minutes are pure, vintage Waters, containing some of the most inspired expressions of his wicked genius he ever managed to create, and setting the bar at a high level which the rest of the movie is then, sadly, unable to match.
Still, for Waters’ many fans, this kind of critical quibbling makes no difference to their enjoyment of its many riches, and for those who are exploring this alternative auteur for the first time, the fact that Desperate Living is not as complete a package as the masterful Female Trouble doesn’t make it any less essential an experience. There was a certain magic at work in these heady, early years of the Dreamland crew, and it is just as evident in this movie- with its guerilla-filmmaking feel, its grainy 16mm photography, its elaborately shoddy sets built from found objects and refuse, its celebration of filth, and its mockery of traditional cinematic forms- as in any of the others. What makes it so… well… refreshing (for want of a better word) is that, as always, Waters’ subversive trash is not merely intellectual posturing, nor is it exploitation, for it is clear that all of his participants are equally complicit in his effort to inundate us with perversity; John Waters is a subversive filth-monger because he finds it fun, and because it is an expression of self rather than a calculated pose, he makes it irresistibly fun for the rest of us. Of course if you are someone who has, as Peggy Gravel puts it, “never found the antics of deviants to be one bit amusing,” you are best to leave this one alone, as well as the rest of Waters’ canon; although his work, for all its over-the-top shock value and subversive topsy-turvy morality, is ultimately as good-natured and sweetly innocent as, say, two naked children playing doctor, for somebody whose sense of humor is not well-tuned to this kind of trashy treat, it’s about as appetizing as a fried rat on a plate.